Antony seizes chance as Erik ten Hag recaptures Manchester United’s spirit
If nothing else, Wout Weghorst can always say he turned a game against Barcelona. Admittedly, he turned it by going off rather than by anything he did on the pitch. Manchester United, outclassed with the giant Dutchman on the pitch, were galvanised and equalised two minutes after his departure. His replacement, Antony, scored the goal to beat Barcelona.
It was not quite all down to Weghorst. United already had ample evidence of Erik ten Hag’s gifts as a game-changer before a reshuffle and a replacement proved catalytic. After all, they have the most goals from substitutes in the Premier League this season. They may have had less proof of Antony’s ability to exert such an impact. After early goals against Arsenal and Manchester City, there was a growing suspicion that the £86 million man did not even rank in their strongest side. Bruno Fernandes had done such a compelling impression of a right winger of late that he looked Ten Hag’s best option. The jury may remain out on Antony: the flair player on the right the United fans sang about was George Best, not him.
And yet a game of two halves was a tale of two right wingers. Fernandes spurned a golden chance to give United a second-minute lead and needlessly conceded a penalty. Restored to his favourite role as a No. 10, he had an assist inside two minutes. Antony lent urgency and directness in a way he has not always done. He had scored in style on his debut. A shot guided past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, though, was the defining moment of his United career to date. The nature of their games against Barcelona dictates as much; it is the enormity of the occasion, the magnitude of the victory. Mark Hughes scored 163 goals for United but few are remembered as fondly as the brace in Rotterdam in 1991; Paul Scholes got 155 and the most famous remains the thunderbolt against Barca. United have not had many match-winners against Barcelona and their ranks now include Antony.
The price has made him Ten Hag’s most questionable signing; he cost 1.7 Robert Lewandowskis – even if rather less in wages – and it was a reason why they had to turn to a compromise choice, in Weghorst, in January. Yet Ten Hag seems to possess the kind of alchemy to have a transformative effect. United can say they have knocked Barcelona out of Europe after starting with Weghorst as a No. 10 in the Nou Camp and a No. 9 at Old Trafford. They did so, too, with an improbable hero.
For 45 minutes, there was a chastening comparison; the central midfielder Ten Hag wished he had versus the one he does have. There was Frenkie de Jong, so slick and intuitive in possession, such a natural with the ball with his feet, enabling Barcelona to dictate with effortless ease. And then there was Fred, running around enthusiastically to no effect whatsoever. It was craft against graft.
And then, barely a minute into the second half, graft had its moment. Fred lashed in a shot; perhaps he shinned it in, but the effort he put in sent it past Ter Stegen. It rendered him the first player to score for United against Barcelona against Old Trafford since Scholes in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. Scholes was an altogether more iconic midfielder. Xavi deemed him the best he had seen in 15 or 20 years. Which, while he praised Fred in an interview this week, is not something that could be said of the second finest Brazilian in this United midfield.
But part of Ten Hag’s prowess has been to harness Fred’s quixotic qualities. Fred was terrific against Tottenham, magnificent as a man-marker against Manchester City. And, in between, he has sometimes been hapless. Consistency is not part of his make-up but the last month has brought him three goals and three assists. He has an irrepressible, exuberant streak which can serve him well. He looked utterly undaunted by facing better footballers.
With Fred, without De Jong, the target who eluded him, or Christian Eriksen, the playmaker who is sidelined, United had less of the ball. Their passers are Casemiro and Fernandes, who invariably try to open up defences. There was scant subtlety from the Portuguese when he booted the ball into the grounded De Jong, earning a booking. It scarcely looked a persuasive case to get the Dutchman to join him at Old Trafford.
But it came in a second half of a frenzied atmosphere. United had drive and determination, pace and power. They recaptured the never-say-die spirit the watching Sir Alex Ferguson would recognise from his own teams. They have the relentlessness of a side still powering on in four competitions and, with Barca gone, are surely the favourites for the Europa League. But, if Brazilians have got the better of Barcelona before, they may have been more fashionable figures than Fred and Antony.